OBJECTIVE--To determine the level and type of microbial contamination present on the white coats of doctors in order to assess the risk of transmission of pathogenic micro-organisms by this route in a hospital setting. DESIGN--Cross sectional survey of the bacterial contamination of white coats in a general hospital. SETTING--East Birmingham Hospital, an urban general hospital with 800 beds. SUBJECTS--100 doctors of different grades and specialties. RESULTS--The cuffs and pockets of the coats were the most highly contaminated areas. The level of bacterial contamination did not vary with the length of time a coat had been in use, but it increased with the degree of usage by the individual doctor. Staphylococcus aureus was isolated from a quarter of the coats examined, more commonly from those belonging to doctors in surgical specialties than medical specialties. Pathogenic Gram negative bacilli and other pathogenic bacteria were not isolated. CONCLUSIONS--White coats are a potential source of cross infection, especially in surgical areas. Scrupulous hand washing should be observed before and after attending patients and it may be advisable to remove the white coat and put on a plastic apron before examining wounds. There is little microbiological reason for recommending a more frequent change of white coat than once a week, nor for excluding the wearing of white coats in non-clinical areas.